Unlike many private and state colleges and universities, the 15 communities colleges in the commonwealth aren’t requiring students enrolling for the fall semester to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Leaving open the idea that plans are subject to change, the Mass. Association of Community Colleges issued a statement last week that said the colleges “are not contemplating COVID-19 vaccine mandates at this time.”
UMass-Amherst, Emerson College, Northeastern, Boston University, Brown and Lasell have said students must be vaccinated for the start of fall classes, and the list is certain to grow.
The other list that continues to grow is documented by the state Department of Public Health. On Thursday, the DPH confirmed 1,431 new cases of COVID-19, increasing the state’s cumulative total to 636,476 people infected since last February. In addition, the death toll had risen to 17,515 people, when you count almost 350 people who have died with likely cases of COVID-19.
The community colleges say they strive for equity for their students, many of whom come from poorer communities where access to the vaccine might be more limited.
In its statement, the Association of Community College said, “It is essential that we meet the needs of all of our students, who are often from the communities hit hardest by this pandemic and facing disproportionate access” to the vaccine.
So, rather than develop ways to expedite access to vaccination clinics as part of the college enrollment process — and an expectation for admission — the colleges seem to be taking the approach that getting vaccinated is one more obstacle faced by their students — one the colleges don’t feel is essential to overcome.
But in its own words — “students who are often from the communities hit hardest by this pandemic” — the association points out the life-threatening nature of the coronavirus, while taking a stand that getting into the classroom is more important than dealing on a very individual level with this public health emergency.
For its part, Northern Essex Community College has held vaccination clinics and encouraged students and employees to get vaccinated. The Boston Globe reported NECC president Lane Glenn saying many people in the Lawrence area haven’t been vaccinated, but that shouldn’t stop them from getting a college degree.
But the hurdle to becoming vaccinated isn’t what it was two months ago. It’s much easier to find a site and get an appointment for a vaccination now, including places like the South Lawrence East Elementary School, Lawrence General Hospital and CVS and Walgreen pharmacies in many locations in Lawrence and surrounding communities. The Lower Merrimack Valley Regional Collaborative, a consortium of nine cities and towns, has been running weekend vaccination clinics at Amesbury High School for weeks, passing the 19,000 vaccination point on Sunday, April 18.
For community colleges, the pandemic has been tough on the bottom line, with enrollment dropping dramatically especially among Black and Latino students. It’s essential to bring those students back into the education system across the state. But it is worth possibly endangering their health, the health of everyone connected with a college and, in fact, the health of family members and others back in the student’s home neighborhood, by not requiring they be vaccinated?
Students who are not vaccinated, or who choose for whatever reason not to get vaccinated, have the option of taking classes online, a well-organized system in place long before the pandemic made remote classes commonplace. Community colleges are adept at helping students from all kinds of backgrounds enroll in classes that help them build career paths, and improve their work and life skills.
Community colleges have stepped up before, when faced with a community health crisis. North Shore Community College, for example, made it a mission to tackle food insecurity among its students, working with local food pantries to get students and their families free, fresh food. There’s no reason these colleges can’t make the same effort with vaccines.
Given their essential role in our state’s educational palette, why don’t community colleges set up convenient vaccination options and require students to get the jab to safeguard their health and that of everyone in the college before classes start in the fall? Everyone will benefit: the students, their home communities, the colleges and the commonwealth.